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The number of people chronically infected with hepatitis C in the UK is estimated at 216,000, according to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) annual report on hepatitis C infection published today (Thursday).

The report also reveals that hospital admissions for hepatitis C-related End Stage Liver Disease (ESLD) and liver cancer are increasing, from 612 in 1998 to 1,979 in 2010, while deaths have risen from 98 in 1996 to 323 in 2010. An overall increase in registrations for liver transplants with post-hepatitis C cirrhosis has also been observed from 45 in 1996 to 101 in 2011.

The future burden of hepatitis C-related infections and national progress in tackling the infection is set out in ‘Hepatitis C in the UK’, a report produced by the HPA to coincide with World Hepatitis Day on 28 July.

In 2011, 9,908 new diagnoses of hepatitis C were reported to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in England, up from 7,892 cases in 2010, however this rise is largely thought to be due to changes in laboratory reporting.

Hepatitis C is an infectious disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus causes inflammation of the liver and, when left untreated, can result in chronic liver disease, liver failure, or even death. Because the liver is able to work even when damaged, many people are unaware they have the disease at first because they have no symptoms. It is only when the liver becomes seriously damaged that symptoms occur and people report to their doctor.

 Dr Helen Harris, a hepatitis expert at the HPA said: “Many of the 216,000 people who are chronically infected with the virus are unaware of their infection. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to monitor the true burden of infection to help focus public health action on getting these people diagnosed and into treatment.

“Although our latest report shows that we are having a number of successes in our fight against hepatitis C, many people continue to become seriously ill from this preventable infection, which is usually treatable if caught early enough. We must therefore redouble our efforts and continue to develop new schemes to raise awareness in at risk communities and ensure that individuals who may have been exposed to the virus are tested, diagnosed and treated early, before they become seriously ill.”

Injecting drugs with unsterile injecting equipment, particularly needles and syringes, can put people at risk of infection, even if they injected only once or twice in the past. Others at risk of hepatitis C include those who have received blood transfusions before September 1991 or blood products before 1986 in the UK. People, who originate from countries where hepatitis C is endemic, such as South Asia, are also at risk – often following medical or dental treatment with unsterile equipment.

In recent years, campaigns by the Department of Health, NHS and non-government organisations such as The Hepatitis C Trust have worked to raise awareness of the disease among health professionals and the public, so that it can be diagnosed and treated before severe liver damage occurs. As a result of these campaigns, more people are contacting health professionals to be tested, and the number of confirmed cases of hepatitis C has increased steadily since 1995.

 Dr Harris continued: “It’s very encouraging that new drugs are now available that can help clear the most difficult to treat strain of the virus in most people. Between 2006 and 2011, an estimated 27,500 people with chronic hepatitis C in England have been treated with NICE recommended combination therapy, but more people need to access this treatment if the future burden of hepatitis C infection is to be averted.”

“It’s important that hepatitis C provision continues to be a priority for the NHS, particularly for those marginalised groups of society who are most affected by the epidemic. We also believe it’s vital that local commissioners continue to work together to ensure that all affected individuals are able to access prevention and healthcare services.”

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